January 31, 2001:

Stingray city! It sounds kitschy, and it was: A 20-minute boat ride out to a sandbar just north of Grand Cayman Island, where we jumped out of the boat into warm waist-deep water, right into the middle of a bunch of stingrays that must have numbered in the hundreds. And we swam with the stingrays, who had learned by that time that human beings bring small, freshly dead squid that don't try to swim away. So the rays were not only not avoiding us, they were thronging us, rubbing up against our legs like cats, stacked three and four deep all around us, indifferent to being stroked and patted as they cruised by, slowly waving the ends of their diamond-shaped bodies for propulsion.

What might seem insanity, dumping a boatload of tourists from Dubuque into the middle of a throng of largish animals (the females are four feet long and three feet wide) each bearing a venomous sting, went without incident. Nobody got stung, and everybody had a wonderful time, most of all the stingrays, who ate the squid we fed them until they refused to take any more. But they hung around anyway, and the boat crew showed us how the smaller rays (perhaps the size of a fry pan) will nestle in your outstretched arms just under the surface for the sake of your body heat. We slopped in the water for an hour and a half, snapping pictures and ducking under the water to watch the rays through our snorkel masks. The photo above is Carol "holding" a small stingray, which is under water being jostled by all the rest of the tourists and thus can't be seen very well.

I found this a lot more fun than petting Picasso the Dolphin, not the least because we were not being constantly reminded what a privilege it was. (Rights first become privileges, and then the exclusive perquisites of some anointed elite. So it seems to be going with our interface to the "wild" world.) Having thought almost not at all about stingrays in my earlier life, I now feel a sort of kinship with them. We could do worse in teaching our people how to respect the living things we cherish.
January 30, 2001:

The Maasdam docked at Cozumel at 5:45 AM this morning, with a sound like a bad scrap crusher about to throw a hydraulic cylinder. I thought we'd hit an iceberg (admittedly a challenge in 80 degree water) but Gretchen slept right through it. My father was like that, and there are sure some times when I'd like to have gotten some of that skill. We found (a little too late to be useful) a note behind the bathroom door telling us "not to be alarmed" at the noise coming from the stern thruster. We did learn that whateverthehell a "stern thruster" is, our cabin is parked right over it.

Our stay at Cozumel was short, barely six hours, and just long enough for the very popular tour of the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. Carol and I and Gretchen passed on that one, and went on the much more low-key Dolphin Encounter. At the Chankanab National Park on Cozumel, there is a matrix of several very large sea pens on the ocean, where four trained bottle-nose dolphins "encounter" humans. Some of them are rescues; our dolphin still bears the scars of a shark attack that would have been the end of him if some Cuban fishermen had not intervened. Anyway, eight of us stood waist-deep on a catwalk, and Picasso the dolphin swam slowly past us and let us pet him briefly. We got to feed him some fish and listen to him "sing," and then we all got the inevitable photo opportunity of Picasso "kissing" us on the check while a photographer snapped $20 pictures. Part of me thought it was all pretty hokey, but on the other hand, a middle-aged computer geek like me is unlikely to be able to lay hands on an animal like that under any other circumstances.

I think the supposed environmentalists who object to things like this forget that the more you forbid people to get out and be in the thick of the environment, the more people forget that it's out there and important. Without public support, I don't think any sort of humane environmentalism can stand, and the more you declare humanity the enemy and wall us off from creatures like dolphins, the closer we will come to the day when no one cares enough to continue to protect them. Picasso did not appear to be suffering, and his ocean pen was five times the size of the dolphin tanks you often see in the United States. As far as I'm concerned, the deep greens can just go stick it; this is a good thing, and does far more to protect the dolphins than all their whining.
January 29, 2001:

At sea all day. Mostly we sat around, BSed, laughed a lot, and decompressed. And, of course, we ate. Eating is the #1 cruise vacation entertainment. Carol picked up a leaflet at the ship's health club indicating that passengers gain an average of two pounds per day on cruises. This wouldn't be hard to do; at least on Holland America ships, superb food is available virtually all the time. We had a poached salmon salad for lunch, with a wedge of watermelon and several (small) portions of selected side dishes. The temptation to excess is strong. I've been pretty successful getting my weight down from 167 to 156 over the past couple of years, and don't want to gain it all back in the space of a week. So Carol and I have vowed to walk two miles per day, around and around the lower promenade deck, where one full pass around the ship is a quarter mile. I haven't weighed myself (scales are conspicuously absent here) but my pants are still loose, so I can't be doing too badly.

And after tonight's formal dinner, rather than take in the Las Vegas style stage show (which is a gene I don't think any of us inherited) we all hung out in front of the huge glass sculpture by the central desk, and Bonnie tried to teach us all to dance. Now, Carol doesn't need much teaching (she's danced on stage in several community theater productions) and I was a little too full of beaujolais to internalize it, but we told funny dog stories between numbers and greatly enjoyed the company.

The ship was plowing the water hard to get to Cozumel by the crack of dawn, and there was more rock'n'roll (if you know what I mean) than we had experienced thentofore. What the beaujolais didn't make wobbly, the ship's motion did, and by nine thirty none of us could properly stand. But that was time enough for one day, and if I find myself absently doing the foxtrot someday with a distinct starboard lean, I'll know why.
January 28, 2001:

Carol and I are off on a Caribbean cruise, celebrating the memory of my mother, who died this past August. (See my August 29, 2000 entry, in the Archives. The link is above.) Accomplanied by my sister Gretchen, her husband Bill, and three of their friends, we left Ft. Lauderdale at 6 PM on the MS Maasdam, operated by Holland America. This is the reason for my week's silence here; the ship has some limited Internet access, but that access doesn't include FTP, and even if it did, the cost is 95 cents per minute.

Ouch. So for this week Contrapositive Diary will be written on my Handspring Visor, using the Targus Stowaway keyboard I described in my January 22, 2001 entry, and I'll upload the week's run when we return to Chicago on February 4. We'll be visiting Cozumel, Grand Cayman (where Carol and I spent our honeymoon in 1976) and Jamaica (plus the cruise line's private island) before returning to port next Sunday morning.

This is our second cruise; three years ago we watched a total solar eclipse aboard another Holland America ship, on a special 10-day eclipse cruise that visited several islands in the eastern Caribbean. Gretchen and her friends were with us that time too, along with author Jim Mischel and his wife Debra. The chief downside then was that the image of the sun through my small telescope wobbled slowly as the ship bobbed on the ocean. We don't have that problem this time.

It is a different crowd, though. The eclipse cruise was a nerd cruise, full of astronomy freaks with custom telescopes, fancy cameras, and laptop computers. They were people in their thirties and forties, and small children were everywhere. The casino was empty but for an isolated granny or two pulling the slots. This time, we're among the youngest people here, and we've seen only one child so far. The casino is smoke-filled and packed. (The eclipse people, for the most part, didn't smoke.) My word processing setup, which wouldn't have been noticed among the technology-heavy eclipse crowd, draws a good deal of gawking and comment here, as I hammer on a table in the informal Lido Restaurant. "Where did you get that?" they ask. "Staples," I reply. "And for $350 you can have one too!" And when I'm done, both Visor and keyboard vanish into the pockets of my shorts, where there's still room for my Elph digital camera. 264 shots left in my 48MB Compact Flash memory card. Beats lugging film all hollow.

Not much to report so far. We saw five manatees in the water beside the ship while we waited on deck in Ft. Lauderdale for departure. Dinner was elegant this evening, and we'll be at sea all day tomorrow (Monday) and all Monday night as we roil the waters heading for Cozumel. I'll have time to think, take notes on my book on the Old Catholic movement, and have some low-pressure hang-out time with Gretchen and her friends. Carol is beside me; the sea is calm and blue.

Life is good.
January 27, 2001:

Late yesterday afternoon, Carol and I had to take Mr. Max in to have him put to sleep. His kidneys had been failing for some time, over and above his being totally blind and mostly deaf, and weak in the hind legs. He was at least 14; we're not really sure. He could have been older.

And so ends a 20-year dog cycle, that began on January 18, 1981, when we brought a squirming handful of white fluff home with us from his breeder in Binghamton, New York, and named him Mr. Byte. The Byter worked out so well we went back to Binghamton and brought home Chewy two years later. And it was Mr. Byte and Chewy for what seemed like always, until Max found Carol in 1988.

He was full grown, but barely, and maybe a year old. (He still had a couple of his baby teeth.) He had been wandering for awhile, was full of burrs and tangles, and was all skin and bones. But when he came up to Carol at the teller machine in Santa Cruz, California, where Carol was depositing her paycheck, it was as if to say, Take me home! I'll bet you already have a toaster!

She did. And the scruffy, skinny little mutt fleshed out; part cairn terrier, part who knows what. He could run like nothing else, considering the shortness of his little legs, and he would dig in the garbage and bury old corn cobs in the dirt under the back deck. He could catch a ball on the fly and never miss until his last year or two, when his eyes began to go. This delighted us endlessly, since neither Byte nor Chewy ever learned to retrieve. We had the three of them for a long time, and it was easy to imagine it would go on forever: the Imperial Mr. Byte, loveable, cuddleable Chewy, and Mr. Max...the terrier.

But dogs are not forever, at least not in this world. We lost Mr. Byte in April 1995; Chewy in September 1998 (at 16 years, four months!) and Mr. Max in 2001. We had young dogs for a long time, and then it seemed like we had old dogs for a long time. And finally, we have no dogs at all.

I'm not sure what to say. I blessed him before the vet hit him with that final injection, and thanked his Creator for the loan of one small but fabulous corner of creation. Dogs are mysterious: Why should they love us so much, and we them? Is this a sign of some deeper bond, something that goes beyond the confines of this one small physical world? Do they exist to teach us to love, or (as I have written elsewhere) to test the depth of our humanity? Dogs forgive us of all, once we repent and treat them better—is this a reflection, however flawed, of how our Creator will treat us? And what role do they have in eternity? Will I awake on Resurrection Day with a new body and a leash in each hand? And dammit, God, if not, why not?

Carol and I will begin another dog cycle someday. Until then, I will simply reflect on how I would have been another man entirely without them. The things that change us the most are those things that love us, and sometimes the scale of the changes they make can't be seen until they're gone.
January 26, 2001:
It's a slightly odd thing to admit, but there you have it: My mother's recipe for beef barley soup is available on the Web, from Mr. Food. (Mr. Food is an ABC-TV affiliate feature with an associated Web site on www.women.com.) It's a marvelous meal in itself, rich and satisfying, (especially with a loaf of rough bread to tear big chunks from for dipping) and my sister and I ate it a lot in the Sixties. It smells wonderful while it's cooking (as good as chicken soup but very different) and makes a house feel loving and secure. I'm sure the recipe is an old standard, and I'm glad to point you to something as sublimely good as it is sublimely simple.
January 25, 2001:

There's a gonzo obsession abroad in the land, judging from the latest issue of Newsweek, alongside books like Bobos in Paradise (see yesterday's entry) and Nicholas Lehmann's liberal-paranoid rant against standardized college entrance testing, The Big Test. The obsession pointed up in all of these publications is that unless children are accepted at and complete their educations at Ivy League colleges, their lives are basically for nought and they have lost the race for everything worthy in life. Newsweek's cover story for January 29 describes this insanity and profiles several sets of parents who are burning out themselves and their own children trying to generate these superkids who have done everything (including clinching acceptance at Yale) by the time they're 17. Music lessons, three sports at a time, accelerated courses in math, tutoring in the SAT, all worked in around three hours of dubious homework per night. It starts in kindergarten; nay, it starts with bobo women reading Shakespeare to their bulging tummies through a Pregnaphone. And it often ends with kids refusing to slave on, or doing drugs, or just dropping out of education entirely.

It's just nuts. I've met a number of Ivy Leaguers, and they're not any better educated than people who go to state colleges—though most think they are. I've interviewed Harvard graduates who can't proofread a simple technical article. Nor are they better off financially as a group. The richest people I know are all self-made, and not a single one has a prestige degree. (I can think of several who have no degrees at all.) Many came out of the military; nearly all were disciplined risk-takers who started companies, grew them, and then sold them. The preponderance of Ivy Leaguers in government is less a consequence of education than of connections, and of that annoying assumption (beaten into them by their parents, and reinforced by their arrogant professors) that the world is theirs for the taking. Folks, if you assume that the world is yours for the taking, you can be in the ruling class too—if you're really sure that's what you want. A Yale degree has very little to do with it. Smart people recall, however, who it was that fed the guillotines during the Terror. It wasn't the working class women in the front row, knitting.

Let your kids be kids. Give them time to think, and dream, and sort out the messy impressions our world hands them. Give of your time—don't pay someone else to give of their time. Listen to them. Let your family be a family; be loving of your spouse where your kids can see you, and remember that success is really nothing more than being at no one's mercy than your own.
January 24, 2001:

I just finished an interesting and occasionally hilarious book: Bobos in Paradise, by David Brooks. Brooks coins a new term, "bobo", from "bourgeois bohemian," by which he means the sort of highly educated but basically clueless people who buy $50 titanium pancake flippers from Pottery Barn and then go to the office in torn jeans to show their solidarity with the working poor. Seattle is full of them, as are most college towns. Such people used to be called Yuppies, but as they're not all young anymore while not having changed in any other substantive way, some new tag was necessary.

Bobos have lots of education and a fair amount of money, but whereas Brooks seems to think they're our new ruling class, I'm less sure. Doubtless those bobos who work in government represent a chunk of the ruling class, but most of them are just highly paid grunts with too much money and no sense of balance or perspective. Brooks has more than a little fun with them, especially their travel habits, but he doesn't dissect them as thoroughly nor as cruelly as someone like P. J. O'Rourke would have done, and has on occasion in his many essays on culture.

Everyone will doubtless identify a bobo characteristic that grates on them. Brooks certainly puts them all up in lights. For me it is their utter lack of any capacity for critical thinking; they are fetishists who seize on ideas that "feel right" and then can't be shaken loose for anything. But ask them why they hold a position and they fall speechless; ideology can't be explained, of course, and for bobos there's nothing but ideology. Still, for all his criticism, Bobos in Paradise is basically an apologia, and Brooks tries hard (but mostly fails) to convince us that the world is a better place with bobos in it.

It's fairly short, an easy read, and will probably make you squirm a little. That's not always a bad thing, though; if you don't read books like this on occasion you may well never realize how ridiculous your inner life is becoming. Highly recommended.
January 23, 2001:

Here's a delightful bit of doggerel from Catholic novelist/essayist Hilaire Belloc that I would love to have engraved on a plaque or at least calligraphed on some good quality paper and framed:

Wherever the Catholic sun does shine,
There's music and laughter and good red wine.
At least I've always found it so:
Benedicamos Domino!
What often goes unnoticed in the discussions of how repressed Catholics are in terms of the simple delights of living is the fact that for the most part ordinary Catholics have retained their grip on the goodness of the world and all that exists in it. The Roman hierarchy may well be a bunch of dour old men, but in the greater Catholic world the goodness of creation and even (heavens!) the human body have never been much in question.
January 22, 2001:

Taking notes while travelling has always been a challenge, though it's grown easier as machines have shrunk. When Carol and I go on our cruise next month, I'm going to try something remarkable: I'll be word processing on a Handspring Visor, using a Targus Stowaway folding keyboard. The full working assembly is shown above left; the keyboard has a prop for the Visor (here hidden behind the Visor) and a set of contacts, and takes its power from the Visor's AAA batteries. Special driver software (shipped with the keyboard) does have to be uploaded to the Visor, which has no native support for keyboards.

I was amazed at how effective it is. The keyboard is basically a laptop keyboard broken into four hinged sections, and there is a clever system of latches to make it all lay down flat and rigid. It's obviously no equal to my venerable Northgate Omnikey keyboards, but it feels a great deal like my IBM laptop, on which I've done a lot of good work. Most remarkably of all, it folds down to something only about 10% larger than the Visor itself. (See below.) Although somewhat fragile when resting on the tabletop, when folded the keyboard is fully protected and quite rugged. I bought the Targus Stowaway at Staples, though it's readily available from online catalog sites. It's about $100.

I bought a fairly sophisticated word processor to run on the Visor. It's called WordSmith and costs $29.95 until 1/31/2001. It synchronizes its files on your PC as Word files, which can then be opened and edited from Word. It can do all the usual formatting (italics, bold, underline) and change the size (if not the style) of the Visor's display font. All in all a pretty potent package for packing really light, and I'll report my experiences when we return.
January 21, 2001:

There's a catch to almost any music digital rights management system created to work on standard PCs: At some point you need to feed bits to the sound board, and those bits can be "sniffed" as they go without disrupting them. There are programs with legitimate uses that install as system drivers and sniff audio streams in order to capture audio data as .WAV files. (One of the best known is Total Recorder.) To forbid that sort of thing, you'd have to allow a rights management system to have pretty much absolute control of the machine and its operating system—something Windows NT and 2000 were explicitly designed to prevent. I expect that rights companies and hackers will engage in an arms race to protect and un-protect that bit stream, and it will force us to ask some fundamental questions about what we will allow software to do to our PCs.

I've experienced some early volleys in this sort of war when I tried Glassbook Reader, (a rights-managed reader for e-books) which takes great pains to keep inquisitive utilities from the regions of memory where it keeps its bits. Glassbook will not load if it detects a debugger running, and it will not allow a debugger to load after it starts running. It gloms any cycles in the System Idle Process to keep anybody else from hooking them, and once in memory, it will not unload, even if you try to nuke it with the NT Task Manager. (I have no idea how they managed to do that!) To get it out of memory you have to literally reboot the system. (It does this to keep utilities from killing its process and then copying its data from the memory it had been guarding.) That pegged it for me; I will not buy a Glassbook title no matter how badly I want it. My machine remains my machine and I will not surrender that much control. A certain amount of piracy will always exist and the labels will have to live with it, and if that means purely digital content doesn't happen, well, we'll live with that too.
January 20, 2001:
In poking around gathering information on how one programs a "conduit" for synchronizing a Palm OS database with a PC program, I discovered that someone is actually working on a Delphi component to do the job. Tabdee Ltd. in the UK offers TurboSync, which provides a component wrapper for all of the API calls required by Palm OS conduits. I downloaded the trial version, but there's a fair amount of study to be done before I can even begin to fool with it, so I may set the whole matter aside for now. I have lots to do on Aardmarks yet, and that's a clear priority. TurboSync will (I hope) evolve in the meantime, and by the time I can take up the challenge of writing my own WAB-based PC contact manager in Delphi—probably as an additionasl Aardmarks feature—the product will (according to the company's Web site) do a great deal more. By the way, if you're a Visor user and don't yet know about Visor Village, go take a look and bookmark it now. Best gatherum of Visor lore I've yet discovered. (There's a sister site called Palm Boulevard for Palm slabs, and a sort of PDA supersite called PDA Street with links to product-specific sites for all the major slab products.)
January 19, 2001:
I'm putting the finishing touches on my short SF anthology, which I've been laying out in InDesign as a practice project in book design. All the stories are in, with the possible exception of "Drumlin Boiler." Not many magazines will even consider an 11,200 word story, so if Asimov's rejects it, I suspect I'll just throw it in the book. In the meantime, there's some finishing of introductions to be done, and the nagging problem of finding a suitable (and embeddable) font to replace MVOldStyle. Changing the font will probably mean taking another pass through the whole 300 pages, fixing shifting page breaks and shooting newly exposed widows and orphans. (This is layout-speak for isolated lines at the beginning of a page, bled over from a previous paragraph.) On the whole it's working out, and I'm learning a great deal doing it. Adobe InDesign is a fine product, and I powerfully recommend it if you want to develop some skills in book, magazine, or newsletter layout.
January 18, 2001:

My conviction that both the flaws and the opportunities in our industry lie on the edges—where things connect to one another—is confirmed in my month's experience with the Handspring Visor. The device works pretty well in and of itself. It stores addresses, quick notes, appointments, and such things quite handily. What frustrated me was my efforts to move data into it or out of it. The Visor "syncs" with specially-equipped software when you press a little button on its USB cradle. Quite cool—press the button, the software wakes up, and makes what is in the Visor identical to what is in the specially-equipped software. More or less. The Visor seems to have trouble getting the idea across to the PC (and vise versa) that a record has been deleted. This may be simple machine caution, but it's a nuisance. Delete an address record on the PC, and it's a coin toss whether you also have to delete it from the Visor.

But that's a little thing compared to the Visor's most important limitation. You have two choices for partner software to run on the PC: Either the (primitive) Palm Desktop contact manager that comes with the Visor, or else Microsoft Outlook. Period. Just those two. What about ACT? Or any of the lesser contact managers? Or, for that matter, the WAB-based Windows Address Book?

Failing additional partner applications, you would expect the Palm Desktop to be able to import a few of the commoner formats, including .WAB. But no, you can import addresses from Lotus Notes, or else the usual comma and tab separated values. Period. Not the Eudora address book or anything else.

Apart from its relative newness, I can see no reason why this should necessarily be the case, and I'm hoping that over time people will begin to write and sell new third-party add-ons that will grow the list a little. It sure wouldn't hurt for Handspring to make it easier by providing some better software tools for developers than they do.
January 17, 2001:
The conventional explanation for why gambling and porn are the two e-commerce industries that are still doing very well on the Net is that both are heavily regulated or even illegal in many places. (Most online gambling and paid porn servers are located outside the US, usually in obscure countries in the Third World.) I ran across a news posting wondering why this is the case for porn, since there are literally hundreds of porn newsgroups allowing free and pretty close to anonymous downloading of a body of porn amounting to hundreds of thousands of separate images per day. It can't be a question of "quality" porn (whatever that is) being sold for money and the rest simply being amateurs with digital cameras, since the bulk of what is uploaded to the porn newsgroups is the material purchased from the paid porn sites. (Some rough justice there, I guess.) So even when porn is more or less completely free, people still pay for it. Go figger. But also consider this in the light of the Napster phenom. Even though Napster provides virtually every track ever sold on CD for free, people are still buying CDs at a pretty brisk rate. Something is going on here that we're not grokking in its fullness.
January 16, 2001:

What is virtually never remarked upon in connection with Microsoft's ambitious .NET initiative is that virtually all the benefits accrue to Microsoft. There may be a few for midsize to large business, but little indeed for small business, and almost nothing at all for individual consumers. The main thrust of .NET, as I see it, is to centralize the distribution of software out of application servers, which can be a very good thing for enormous enterprises, and that's where all the current buzz is focused. But inside that delivery model is a worm: It allows the vendor to require a "pay per play" business model, in which you pay a little each time you run an application, or even pay by the minute, as we have traditionally for long distance phone services. Most large software companies are desperate to move to such a model, because software as a "boxed commodity" has a serious drawback: If people become content with their software, there's little reason for them to spend any further money on it, in terms of upgrades.

This is happening now in a big way. I know a lot of people who are quite happy with Office '97, which is a solid product that runs extremely well on today's superfast PCs. I myself am unlikely to buy another upgrade of Office, since 2000 does everything I need it to do. Similarly, I doubt I will upgrade a version of Windows beyond Win2K, since it provided the last piece in the computing pie that NT4 didn't: USB support. The new Windows, code-named Whistler, doesn't seem to add anything substantive to the Windows idea, and it supposedly has a vicious system of copy protection that no sane computer user would ever consent to: A copy of Windows is licensed not only to a CD, but also to an individual machine. If your hard disk craps out, you will have to apply to Microsoft for a new installation key before you can reinstall the operating system you've paid for.

The solution to this is easy: Don't buy Whistler. Don't buy Office 20xx. Don't buy any software that requires you to buy it over and over and over and over again. (In truth, I doubt Whistler will ever ship with such a system. Consumers aren't quite that dumb—and by the time Whistler ships, Linux will have had some additional time to mature as an end-user desktop environment. We'll see.)
January 15, 2001:

Dean Kamen (see my January 12 entry) has come out and said, aw, shucks, IT's nothing all that revolutionary. Another site posted a drawing from a recent Kamen patent application that I show at left. So it is a powered scooter, but with a difference: Only people with impeccable balance can use it—unless Kamen has mastered a method of computer-controlled unicycle-style machine balance, which is not impossible (see the Asimo robot from Honda, linked in my November 20 entry) and could be enormously useful in some applications. Plus, it's the sort of thing that a mechanical engineering superstar like Kamen would find interesting.

But is this useful in a scooter? Putting scooter wheels side by side seems to have no necessary advantage over putting them in the line of travel, unless I'm really missing something crucial. (Not being a scooter user doubtless hinders my ability to grok this business in its fulness. Or maybe it's just middle age.) Even if it can balance itself, why is this better? Help!
January 14, 2001:
Carol and I found ourselves in the vicinity of the Phoenix area's first In-N-Out Burger at Scottsdale Promenade this morning at about 10:45 AM, and decided to stop in for an early lunch. The place has been open for about two months now, but it's become so popular you can't even get close to it at lunchtime or for most of the afternoon that follows. In the evenings they have Scottsdale policemen around the place directing traffic, and making sure that the lines (which go out the door and around the side of the building) don't get testy. Even at 10:45 AM, the place was jammed, and we waited 15 minutes to get our order. Not exactly "fast" food. (And there were no tables left, so we went back and ate in the Jeep.) But they make a marvelous burger, and truly exceptional French fries. You can look past the counter and see guys whacking real potatoes through a fry slicer (by hand!) and then dumping the fries in the deep fryers. No quick-frozen potato-flavered imitation food substitutes here. The fries actually smell like potatoes, which is something I don't think I recall ever sensing anywhere else. The decor is decent 50's retro, and there's very little choice on the menu compared to Ronald and the King. Burgers. Fries. Sodas. Shakes. And that's pretty much it. I confess I like it a lot, and I'd go there more often if it weren't such a nuthouse. They've definitely reinvented fast food, and have become so successful that it's not especially fast anymore. Still, if you've never been to an In-N-Out Burger, find one and give it a try.
January 13, 2001:

My struggle continues to devise a decent contact database strategy. I've used a custom Microsoft Access database since Microsoft Access first appeared years ago, but I'm trying to migrate it to the Windows Address Book so the data would be in a standard format. The most recent revelation is that there are two different kinds of Windows Address Books: one ruled by Outlook and stored in a .PST file, and the other ruled by Outlook Express and stored in a .WAB file. I loathe Outlook, but the Handspring Visor won't sync with a .WAB file—only with Outlook's contact data stored in a .PST. So I'm still a little unsure what to do. Handspring's Visor Desktop app is pretty minimal, but I don't see anybody making a better one. (Can't compete with free software that comes with every Visor, I can only assume.)

There is a Delphi component that encapsulates access to .WAB files, and I'm planning on using .WABs as contact storage for Aardmarks. If anybody knows of a third-party syncing utility that can make a Visor jibe with a .WAB file, do share the secret. An hour's research on the Web turned up nothing. I'm surprised that there is so little support for data stored in a .WAB—you'd think every damfool app in the universe would support it.
January 12, 2001:

First snow this season visible on the mountains through my big north window. Winter has finally arrived in North Scottsdale.

And yowsers! This morning my inbox is clogged with news aggregators and breathless colleagues telling me that Dean Kamen is going to remake the world with his latest invention, variously called "Ginger" or "IT." I usually sweep crap like that into the spam bin, but this time I admit I'm intrigued. Kamen is a Good Guy, not a crank, and I hold him in the highest regard. He's the one who recently demonstrated a wheelchair that can climb stairs, and was the originator of the portable insulin pump 25 or so years ago. He bankrolls an annual robotics contest for high schoolers that is a truly fine thing. So what the hell is going on?

My early guess: He hired an aggressive PR agency to hype the gadget, whatever it is, and is getting his money's worth in spades. ZDNet published a lead article by Jesse Berst on the topic that said as close to nothing as it's possible to say about anything. Yahoo news published another article (much linked to by the aggregators) that said almost exactly nothing, save, "IT will be bigger than the PC. IT will be small and cheap. (about $2000.) IT is revolutionary. IT will remake cities. It will shake huge companies to the core. IT will be available next year." Yup, we're talking world-class PR here.

I am truly in awe at the vacuousness of the news stories. Take a look, sheesh:

My thoughts: If there's any meat at all to the story, IT/Ginger must deliver, in some remarkable way, one of the fundamental needs of human societies: Food, clothing, shelter, energy, healthcare, transportation, or communication. Kamen is a mechanical engineer whose inventions are mechanical wonders, which indicates to me that we're not talking about any predominantly electronic, chemical, or biological innovation. Nor do I take seriously the crackpot stuff about free energy or antigravity. Nor is it a personal helicopter—not for $2000. (It is apparently a reasonably small device—no more than man-sized—given that he schlepped it disassembled to Jeff Bezos' house in a few duffles.) I hazarded an early guess that it might be some kind of cheap, efficient fuel cell, but that's not likely to have been a Kamen passion. He likes stuff with lots of moving parts. So the most likely category is transportation.

And transportation, truly, is what molds cities. Jesse Berst guesses that it's some kind of powered scooter, as though there has never been such a thing as a powered scooter. (I dodge twelve-year-olds on powered scooters all the time.) In truth, as I said, we know almost nothing. So I'll guess by describing what I would like Kamen to invent for the world: A cheap, light, electric kiddy car with sonar and GPS guidance. Tap in where you want it to go, and it goes there, keeping clear of other kiddy cars and pedestrians and obstacles. Now, this is extremely unlikely (at least for $2000, and given current battery technology) but it's my best guess. And if Kamen whips up all this froth and then next year hands us an electric scooter, he goes off my Good Guys list for good. Dean, you be warned.

So...what do y'all think? In Jawja-speak, the email is jayeff ayat duntemann dawt cawm.
January 11, 2001:

I get at least a hundred spam emails every day, but one this afternoon definitely qualifies as Spam of the Month, if not Spam of the Year. Not sex, not wealth, not even used golf balls in bulk, but...hanging chad soap on a rope! Yessiree, some bright prankster bought up a ton of voting machine chad from various state election boards, and tossed it into the pot with some "gentle transparent glycerin soap." Molded into a bar with its own velvety smooth rope, the chads are clearly visible and add additional scrubbing power—and they do, in fact, hang from your shower head.

No, I will not reproduce the contact info here, since I don't want to encourage these fools. Scour the Web and you'll probably find one if you crave it that badly. I simply wanted to remark that there is still cleverness in the world, though Carol did take a moment to wonder, "What would that do to our septic system?"

Promote gridlock, doubtless.
January 10, 2001:

The December print edition of Harper's had a couple of interesting items on the topic of Utopia, one of them by their Editor in Chief, Louis Lapham. Lapham laments the near-universal connection of utopianism to totalitarianism in the popular mind, to the exclusion of all thought in the direction of creating anything other than a market-driven society. It's an interesting point, but Lapham mostly ducks the issue of why this came about: For the most part, utopian thinking is totalitarian by nature, in that virtually all utopian schemes require that all citizens cooperate completely in the scheme for the scheme to work. And utopias as presented usually run against the grain of some facet of human nature—mostly the desire for a significant degree of personal choice. A market-driven society allows itself to be shaped by personal choice, and I think this is why market-driven societies have been so successful.

I'm not much interested in utopian schemes that have to deal with scarcity of materials and energy, since scarcity is a killer in the whole concept. We're probably stuck with the market, though there's a lot we can do to make the market more humane. What's more intriguing to ponder is the nature of a society in which neither energy nor materials are limited. We might in fact get there someday, though it won't be anytime soon, and probably not for another hundred years or so. With nanotechnology to refine raw materials and assemble physical artifacts, and zero-point energy to turn the crank, you could conceivably create a society in which every person can have pretty much anything he or she wants in terms of material goods. What, in such circumstances, would people actually end up owning? If there were no scarcity, and thus no challenge in piling up goods, what would we all settle for? And what would the purpose of the human creature be in a society where there is no necessary striving? Lapham concedes that historical utopias like the mythican Arcadia are by nature boring; without any need to strive, there's nothing left to do but "pat the animals and pick the grapes." This is the worst facet of any utopia we might realize in centuries to come, and if there's a general solution I haven't hit on it yet.
January 9, 2001:
I also found, after paying $50 for it, that Eudora Pro isn't what I need either, and with some reluctance I went back to Outlook Express. (Carol has been using Eudora 4, so the money won't be entirely wasted.) Outlook Express is a damned fine little email program, and it doesn't bulk out its mail archive like the "big" Outlook does. Outlook's doesn't compress its .PST files, and they're a proprietary format that isn't easy to "get at," which always bothered me. Express compresses its folder files, so when you delete something your mail base actually shrinks. A .PST grows every time you add something to it, and no matter how much mail you subsequently delete, the .PST never shrinks. Mine was at about 210 MB when I sucked everything over to Express, at which time the total size of all the various files was about 120 MB. So my .PST contained 90 MB of dead air, cripes. Before I had no incentive to dump unnecessary mail, but now I do, bigtime. So the big email Nuke-a-thon is about to begin, and you'll hear the noise of messages imploding all the way to Tucson.
January 8, 2001:

Forgive the discontinuity. I've been tearing the main box apart, installing a home network here, and taking it up to Win2K. This was the last machine I had running NT4, and it was a more difficult upgrade than the others. Not sure why; the other three are Compaqs and this one is a Dell, but I had driver problems and IRQ problems and other hassles, not to mention the simple task of having to reinstall every single app and utility I ever use—which is a lot. But it's done, although I'm still fooling with some of the (many) Delphi components that I use.

While I was at it I installed Netscape 6, and boy, is that a loser! It 'bout broke my heart to see how thoroughly they have ruined the browser I have used without interruption since it first appeared in 1995. And all this for the sake of skins? Bookmarking, which is the single most critical browser feature in my work, has been destroyed. The bookmark editor window is so ponderously slow that I simply won't use it, and unless I'm missing something, Netscape 6 doesn't give you the power to save the current page as a bookmark into a particular folder, as V4 and earlier versions did. I've retained the install suite for 4.75 and will reinstall it, but I may be forced (by increasingly ubiquitous MS browser bias on the Web) to use IE5 instead.

All the more reason to forge ahead with Aardmarks, the database-driven bookmark manager I have been writing in Delphi for over a year now. It's actually pretty far along, and I'm currently implementing the Netscape and IE bookmarks/favorites import feature. Once that's done, I can actually begin using it on a day-to-day basis. (My Netscape bookmarks file currently contains about 3400 URLs, stored in about 80 folders. I should have been database-driven a long time ago!)

When you run it, Aardmarks comes up as a small nonrectangular "always on top" mini-window. (Left) It floats over your browser, and when your browser displays a bookmark you want to capture, you double-click on the "grab one" circle (the upper one) to snag it. Aardmarks gets the URL from the browser using DDE and then re-fetches it, parsing out metadata like the title, description, and keywords, and stores it all in a database. If, however, you click on the "grab all" circle (the lower one) Aardmarks will refetch and store not only the displayed Web page, but all the Web pages linked to in that page. So if you find a "list of links" page you like, you can snag every link on the page with one double-click.

Clicking on the Main bar switches you into the bookmark management screen, which allows you to define a folder hierarchy and store bookmarks into the hierarchy. (It's a conventional Outlook-style UI so I won't waste your bandwidth by showing a screen shot here.) I'm adding a lot of features that go beyond that, and may even build an email client into it. First things first, though: With Netscape no longer an option, I must get this thing presentable for my own use, and soon!
January 5, 2001:

I haven't done much in the robotics area in a few years, but it's always fascinated me (I won our 8th grade science fair First Prize in 1966 with a small, 1-transistor robot that followed a white line on the floor by shining a flashlight bulb down on it and sensing the reflection with a photocell) and I follow the field as best I can. I learned today that a small company is selling a little robot kit that allows you to plug in your Palm and use it as the controller. Photo at left.

Looks like a lot fun, and if I wasn't so damned busy with other leisure-time projects (like the telescope and laying out my SF anthology) I'd buy one like a shot. If you want to learn more about it, go to the Acroname Web site. Click on "Kits" under "Our Products." Browse the whole site—it's damned fine—but if you want to go right to the gadget it's here.
January 4, 2001:

I was a little shocked to learn today that it is legal for companies to discriminate against people with genetic health problems. If you have a genetic test that indicates some sort of problem, a prospective employer can ask you about it after making an offer of employment, and if they don't like what they hear they can withdraw the offer. And if you don't tell the truth and they find out later, they can fire you.

This is appalling, and it's nonsense like this that will eventually spell the doom of private health insurance in the US. And you don't want that to happen, because government health monopolies are a nasty business. Canada's health care system is thin gruel, and Britain's is downright shabby. My friends in both countries complain about it constantly. (And it's a little frightening how they always ask me not to quote them by name!) Government systems make health care available to all, but they ration it pretty stringently. Getting an aspirin is cheap. Getting an MRI can take months, if they allow it at all. And because private health insurance is illegal in most countries with "single payer" health care, there is really no incentive for government health care to be especially good. American health care is fantastic—for those who have insurance. Insurance companies do whatever they can to exclude the people who need care the most, and once you lose health insurance while battling some health problem, it's very difficult to get it again. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think insurance companies need to recognize that the tide of public opinion is not for them so much as against what they correctly perceive as callous and inadequite government controlled health care. A sly guy who could put government health care in the right kind of box with the right kind of ribbons could end private health insurance (and American-style health care) forever.
January 3, 2001:

Forbes Online has an interesting article about a networking research project at UC Berkeley (where else?) that basically recasts the whole idea of the Internet along the Peer-to-Peer (i.e., Napster) model. OceanStore capitalizes on incredibly cheap mass storage connected by incredibly cheap broadband 24 X 7 access. Well, the former is already here (10GB drives are now under $100) but we may wait awhile for the latter—bandwidth is a frightening thing to a lot of powerful people, including the Federal government. The idea behind OceanStore is that we will scatter our strongly encrypted files freely to a constantly active data-refreshing networking layer, so that our files will always exist in numerous places and thus be immune to the failure of any particular storage device or any high-bandwidth path between you and your data.

Two problems immediately occur to me: First of all, strong encryption is a relative and not an absolute thing. If somebody wants to crack your file badly enough, they will. (In truth, though, if your file is one of literally trillions or quadrillions of strongly encrypted files drifting anonymously through cyberspace, knowing what to crack becomes nontrivial, and actually an important aspect of the encyption system. You wouldn't want to spend six months cracking a file you think is Microsoft's plan for world domination and instead uncover a fake Brittany Spears nude JPG.) Second, the encryption would be optional—which means that if you choose not to encrypt your MP3 or DVD video collection, OceanStore would just fling them naked to the four winds so that anyone could find and snag them. This would resemble the FreeNet system now being limpingly implemented, and would certainly make copyright hard to enforce and censorship virtually impossible. (Whether these are bugs or features, of course, depends completely on who you are.) There may be other problems with it (and the bandwidth issue is a dealbreaker) but it's definitely something you'll want to watch.
January 2, 2001:

I've decided to go ahead with my plan to publish a collection of my short science fiction as a LightingSource print-on-demand publication. I bought Adobe InDesign some months back and have been slowly learning it. Nice piece of work, though it has some bugs and a peculiar (read: ported from the Mac) user interface that I found nonintuitive. After fussing with paragraph styles for a while, I began laying out the actual stories a couple of days ago, and I'm astonished to realize that I have about two thirds of it finished already. One interesting hassle that emerged in the process is that I used a font that was installed on my Windows system, assuming I could license it for distribution embedded in a PDF file. Alas, I can't find any mention of the font anywhere, nor even who owns it. All I know is that the SureThing CD Labeler application installed it, and I discovered that only by accident. The font is called MVOldStyle (and its small caps derivative, MVOldStyleSC.) So as much as I like it, I may have to select another font. The bitmap below is a representation of the two fonts. Anybody got any suggestions for something similar?

January 1, 2001:

So this is 2001. 31 years ago, when I was a senior in high school, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was a kind of totem for our group of lunch-table nerds at Lane Tech High School in Chicago. We used to wonder what life would be like thirty-odd years on, and I recall enough of that wondering to smile a little bit: We were wondering about all the wrong things. Most of what we were interested in was technology. We never questioned what people would be eating, or wearing, or singing in the shower. And we got most of the technology wrong. Cheap space travel was a given; how could it not be so? We had come so far so quickly. None of us thought much about computers, which were also a given, but a different kind of given: As something expensive, owned by somebody else, that we might use in extraordinary circumstances but not think much about. We thought we would have flying cars, or at least our own airplanes.

I knew Carol already in 1970, and I do remember wondering if I would marry her, but somehow, imagining being 48 back then was mostly impossible. And we never pictured ourselves at the supermarket, throwing boxes of Cheerios and Kleenex in the cart. Both the carts and the Cheerios and Kleenex look and work about the same way, and while the supermarkets are bigger, they're organized in similar fashion. In some respects, the changes have been all cultural, and not universal, at that. Rock music in 2001 is much more similar to rock music in 1970 than any popular music in 1970 was similar to any popular music in 1940. We still have bluejeans and sneakers, and use both a lot. TV is just as stupid, though I'll admit, movie special effects are way better.

Politics is much worse, religion much better. Why? We are more honest and accepting of our inner natures—and hence much more tolerant of knaves who would have been sent up for life or at least thrown out of office back then. The other reason is the unthinkable amount of wealth created since then, which has made a beeline for the political realm, where it continues to cause all kinds of trouble. Getting money out of politics is probably our most urgent task these days.

But you know, it's really not all that different. I had Cheerios for breakfast every day in 1970, and still do today. I blow my nose with Kleenex. And I still listen to The Association. Take the best from the past and leave the rest there. Make the present the best you can make it, and imagine the future according to your highest aspirations. Somehow we will muddle through.

Now, what's 2025 going to be like?